We have this fantastic system within our body that assists in providing a response to threatening or stressful situations. The system’s response will either cause us to freeze, fight or flight (runaway), these actions are not voluntary, meaning our system does this for us when faced with stress and becomes more automatic under recurring perceived threats.
How does this happen?
Our fight, flight or freeze response occurs within our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which is a huge player in our emotional and physiological responses to trauma and stress. The ANS consists of two other systems, sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic system is responsible for the fight or flight response and releases a chemical called cortisol into our bloodstream.
The parasympathetic system halts the sympathetic system and stops releasing the stress chemical cortisol and moves the body into a state of relaxation, digestion and regeneration.
These systems work in balance with each other to support healthy digestion, sleep and immune system functioning.
When we endure trauma, the balance between the two systems is disrupted. Parasympathetic shifts a person into immobilization and disassociation which is when an individual shifts into a mentally safe space to remove themselves from the stress to process what was happening. Whereas the sympathetic system moves the person into activation or fight or flight.
Disassociation is a biological mechanism, which, as described above, is a protection mechanism. Symptoms experienced by a trauma survivor can be on a continuum of intensity and frequency of fogginess, sleepiness, feeling numb, poor concentration, poor memory.
What does Freeze, Fight and Flight look like?
Freeze: Sometimes, when faced with danger, this is our initial response, we freeze and quickly process the situation we are in. We assess the risk of danger the threat presents and our sensory organs being set up for stimulation. Our pupils will dilate, we become edgy. Freeze is our preparation for action and is short-lived. continued activation of the parasympathetic response can create symptoms of isolation, brain fog, indecision, and dislocation.
Fight and Flight: Involves the sympathetic system as the body releases cortisol and prepares the body for action. If we assess the threat to be high and see the opportunity to flee, we will engage in flight. If there is no opportunity to escape, we engage in fight mode. Our sympathetic system then increases blood flow to the arms and legs and increases our breathing, our skin becomes cold, and our body inhibits digestion.
When the sympathetic system is continuously activated, fight responses often look like hypervigilance, explosive behaviors, bullying, controlling behaviors, angry outbursts. Or flight mode which often looks like overworking or being a “workaholic”, intense anxiety, overthinking and perfectionism.
Further research on trauma has identified 6 stages within a traumatic experience. We begin with the three just mentioned, and the additional 3 stages are discussed below.
We enter fright mode when the trauma progresses, and fight or flight has not restored us to a safe place. We begin to feel dizzy, panic, nausea, lightheaded and numb. In this stage, there is a dual action between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems as they work with the brain’s ability to process and send signals to identify which system needs to function.
As fright goes on, disassociation sets in and we settle into the fifth stage “Flag”. Our body “collapses”, experience helplessness, and regress into the first stage of freeze. Our parasympathetic nervous system takes over, we shut down and immobilize. We disassociate, voluntary actions such as speech are reduced, we become distant, our eyesight becomes poor, and we feel numb. Our heartbeat slows too much we enter the sixth stage
Faint: Which, through other research on evolution, serves as a survival technique. When we lie horizontally, it increases blood supply to the brain. Interestingly, fainting has also been found to be associated with disgust (which traumatic events are) and fainting suits to reject the toxic or poisonous material.
Sometimes when we experience trauma, our symptoms can indicate how the body has processed the event based on this involuntary response we have within our body. If you are enduring thoughts of ‘I should have run away’, ‘I should have fought’, ‘I should have….’, you may not have physically been able to. Your body and mind processed the event to keep you as safe as you could be until the experience or situation was over. This process also explains why we think we will do one thing in a stressful situation but engage in the opposite behaviour. You are also not to blame for your response to the trauma you experienced, you did not decide your actions, but your nervous system made the choice to suit what it felt would bring you safety.
If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!